Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Monday, March 2, 2015

2015 Mount Mitchell Challenge

The weeks leading up to the 2015 edition of the Mount Mitchell Challenge were filled with even more uncertainty than usual. Heavy snowfalls hit the area several times and communications in the State Park were lost. At one point, race director, Jay Curwen, wasn't sure Challenge runners would even go past the Parkway. What to expect on race day was nothing more than a guessing game, so I elected to stop checking until the night before the race and then decide what to take.

Race morning, I was still making decisions.

Do I wear a running pack or just my small belt? Do I take the Yak Trax (which I have never run in before?) How many layers do I need for temps that promised to range from the upper teens at the start to low 30s at the finish?

These questions partially answered themselves. After a frantic, last-minute search to find two ten-ounce water bottles for my running pack (the kind that people wear in race belts) was unsuccessful, I knew I'd be carrying my handheld bottle, so having the pack seemed a little unnecessary, unless I wanted to carry extra gear. There was no forecast of rain, so I saw no reason to carry more than the basics. My Nathan belt was filled with one PowerBar and four gels. I had two more gels and some S-caps in my water bottle pouch. I wore the Brooks Cascadias, a medium weight long-sleeve shirt, a light-weight short-sleeve shirt, and a light-weight long sleeve running jacket. I went with shorts rather than running pants. I had my mitten-gloves and headband, as well. Since they don't weight much, I ran my belt through the Yak Trax and let them hang on either side. In hindsight, I should have bunched them on one side as I couldn't get them far enough back to avoid contact with my arms, but it would only become a minor nuisance rather than an actual problem.

Though there were two early packet pickup opportunities, I elected for race day pickup this year as it was in the Ale House very close to the start. Actually, it would turn out that we picked up our packets in a box truck outside and that the bar was only open for people to use the bathroom. We always get a cotton t-shirt with the race logo (black with purple a primary logo color this year) but we also got a pair of DeFeet "FKT" socks. The start area was the usual mix of nerves and excitement in the crowd of around four-hundred participants. I found a lot of friends and aquaintences milling about but had little time for conversation as before I knew it, Jay was making pre-race announcements. This would be my ninth start (seven Challenge and two Marathons) and I have yet to actually hear anything he's said. I figure it's more for the front-runners, anyway as I just follow (distantly) their lead. I was probably in the middle of the crowd when we started and probably a tad too far back as I found myself dashing for openings to get to less congested areas. After about a mile or two, I had caught up to several friends, including Beth, Beth, Rick, and Phyllis. Ray was running the Challenge as well, but elected to start farther back.

The first stretch of both races runs through Black Mountain and into the campus of Montreat College. Once in Montreat, it gets steeper until a final paved hill that many runners elect to walk, even though it's only about mile four. I had run the last two miles with an untied shoe (my last-minute, start line tie didn't do very well while wearing mitten gloves) so I elected to stop near the top and retie before hitting the trails. Beth caught back up and we walked to the trailhead together. About a half-dozen people had stopped to put on traction gear. Beth asked whether I was going to put on my Yak Trax and I made the quick decision not to. My main reason for bringing them was the slick, shiny ice you encounter. I was not worried about snow or the crunchy ice that gives traction. I might regret it later, but I just didn't want to fool with them at the moment. I never found out if Beth elected to put hers on or not.

Once on the trail, I did begin to question my decision. Most of it was loose, slippery snow. I have no idea if Yak Trax help in those conditions, but I am hoping they do not. Otherwise, my decision probably cost me a bit of time and a lot of energy. It was often the equivalent of running in mud as your feet didn't always land or go the way you wanted, meaning anyone who isn't very flexible, like myself, found their legs sometimes being stretched in uncomfortable directions. This meant an additional effort was required to continue forward motion. The trail section before the first aid station is a nice stretch, but always feels longer than it probably is. The crowd had thinned out here on the single track and I think I only let about two people go by and I may have passed the same number myself. What little conversation I heard or participated in dealt mostly with the snow and the challenge of getting along. One thing everyone agreed on was that it would certainly be easier coming down in the loose snow than going up.

The first aid station (Sourwood Gap) was a welcome site, primarily because I think it is the longest stretch between stations. Over the years, I've gotten a better handle on the gaps between them, never having known the actual mileages. If we were at mile six or so, and the marathon turnaround is mile 14, the next two aid stations should fall roughly four miles apart. By now, it was about 50% loose snow and 50% crunchy ice. The course had opened up into road width and four-wheelers had helped pack things down. For the next several miles, I'd go back and forth with the same small group of runners. After a bit, I decided to just walk the loose snow uphills as they could really get frustrating when I couldn't get traction. Many times, I went out of my way to get to the sections where a rock or two poked through the snow, just to avoid the constant sliding. The grade isn't that much on this part of the course, though it is pretty steady. There are a couple downhill spots, but for the most part, you're climbing.

The second aid station (and my second gel) came right when I was needing it. I found myself drinking more than I might have expected and was nearly emptying the bottle between stops. This station is roughly four miles down a rough, snowy/icy road and is usually manned by a crew with four-wheelers. This year, I noticed that they had camped here the night before--in hammocks! It's called "Pot Cove" and is manned by the Black Mountain Fire and Rescue Crew. After refilling my bottle, I thanked them and took off.

Usually, the next stretch feels the shortest and this year was no exception, though I did have a few moments of deflation as I thought I recognized curves in the trail as the last ones before coming out at the Parkway. The only way I really know I am there is when I can see the Parkway below me, through the trees. They were serving soup, but I really didn't care for any. I wasn't cold, though at times I was getting a little warm. I had not shed any layers yet, other than occasionally removing my headband. I knew with some certainty that the next ten miles, aside from the footpath from the parking lot to the summit, or so would be pavement so I wouldn't have any traction issues to worry about. However, the pavement can get pretty steep, so I would likely find myself walking anyway.

Going up the Park entrance road, I continued to run, but about the time I passed where the Mountains-to-Sea Trail crosses the road, I decided to just try to walk quickly. This worked pretty well as the guy in front of me, who was running and walking, really didn't pull significantly ahead, though he also was getting a few pictures with his phone. My other reasoning for walking was that I really had to hit the porta-jon that I knew would be across from the Ranger Station and running might accelerate the issue. On the lower sections of the road, there were absolutely stunning views. The trees were covered in a layer of ice that seemed to glow as the sun peeked through the clouds. It was one of those high-definition, low-humidity days and it felt like I was alternating between a crystal forest and a snow globe as I ascended the mountain.

My plan probably worked out for the best as I certainly felt more like running after the not-so-quick pit stop. It also helped that the road leveled off a little bit here, making it more conducive to me for running. The final few miles to the parking lot were a mix of walking and running. Jake was the first person I recognized coming back toward me. I expected him to be ahead, but I was honestly a little surprised that I was as close to him as I was. There were a few more turns than I remembered, but the top slowly drew closer. I skipped the parking lot aid station for the moment and headed on up the foot path. The snow was again thick and loose and this was probably the worst traction I had encountered yet. Others were coming down from the summit with a look of relief on their faces. I finally emerged and a volunteer signed off on my bib, beside the elevation sign. Since the tower is a not a natural structure, it doesn't really count as part of the "highest peak in the Eastern U.S." so this year I elected to skip going up it.

Coming down the pathway from the summit, I saw the lead female coming toward me, probably only a minute or two so behind, depending on how quickly she navigated the slick climb. I was pretty sure she would be passing me soon as my least favorite part of the race was coming up. I had been strangely hungry during the early parts of this race and grabbed bananas at some of the aid stations. I decided to do it again at the summit parking lot aid station and ended up with something closer to a bananasicle. It was a tough chew, but I got it down and headed onward. Some miles back, the spout on my water bottle had frozen, meaning I had to unscrew the cap to drink, meaning I couldn't really do it while running. Also, water had dropped onto the pouch and, like at The Nightmare, had frozen the zipper, locking away one of my caffeinated gels and my S-caps. Opening the bottle was a minor nuisance, but no access to my S-caps had me a tad worried because it was a dry day and though I was drinking plenty of water, I was not getting Gatorade at the aid stations, having planned on the capsules for electrolytes.

I was barely out of the parking lot when I saw both Beths coming up the road, not terribly far behind me and within a minute or so of each other. They were holding second and third place and the way I felt, might soon zip past me on the way back to Black Mountain. Actually, I felt ok, I just wasn't moving fast. This stretch of pavement down to the Parkway I just don't do well on. I feel like I should be moving faster than I do, considering it's a gradual downhill. The views were nice, though. The sun was in and out of the clouds and I got the bonus of seeing friends making their way up, which you don't really get with the traditional route. I saw Doug (who told me Ray had turned around with the marathoners,) Rick, Tammy, and Mo and maybe a few others I am just not remembering right now. Pretty soon, I heard some soft footsteps gaining on me quickly from behind. Back home, that usually means Bill is about to pass me, but he wasn't here and these were from a lighter runner. Sure enough, the first female came gliding by. She wasn't quite as friendly as some of the others I'd encountered over the years, but some of that could have been because she realized how close the Beths were behind her and was possibly a bit worried. I later looked her up on Ultrasignup and she's got an impressive resume. Most of the events I wasn't familiar with, but she always seemed to place top three.

I held my steady, slowish pace to the ranger station and hoped that the steeper road that lay ahead would help me pick up some speed. It probably did, but was partly offset by another untied shoe. There was practically nowhere along the roadside to put my foot up to tie it, so I decided to try to make it to the gate, back at the Parkway. I knew that was a good two miles, but I dreaded the thought of having to kneel down to retie it, worrying that I might not get back up. It was extremely loose when I reached the gate and, just like earlier, a bit difficult to tie with the glove part of my mitten-gloves still on. A guy passed me as I worked on the shoe and by the time I was done, he was a good 200 yards ahead of me. There is a slight rise on the parkway, leading back to the Toll Road and I used this moment to walk and drink as much water as I could, so I could refill at the aid station.

When I reached the Toll Road aid station, it was more crowded than I expected, with some marathoners who had just reached it for their turnaround. A quick bottle refill and gel and it was back to the land of limited traction. The temperatures had fluctuated quite a bit over the course of the day and having dropped back below the Parkway, they were trending warmer. Other than my headband from time to time, I didn't take anything off, and instead tried to regulate things by unzipping my jacket and folding back the mitten part off of my gloves. Mentally, I anticipated the next to aid stations to arrive quickly. It was downhill and not terribly far distance-wise. I recognize some sections of the trail, but not enough to give me a clue as to how far I have left to go. Somewhere in this stretch, the second place female (it was not either of the Beths) came by me. That meant that the two Beths were likely battling for third. The next aid station kind of sneaks up on you as the Fire/Rescue Crew is not a "whoop and holler" bunch like some other stations (so you can hear them up ahead.) It was a fairly quick stop then onward.

I was not progressing downhill as quickly as I would have liked. I had tried to exaggerate my stride some back on the pavement to loosen my legs up, but I was still finding myself in that same "fixed gear" stride I had used coming up the mountain. Though the ice and snow had filled in the loose rocks and crevasses and made for a smoother running surface, I found myself unable to use that to my advantage. I was also still having trouble with the loose snow, even though it was now on the downhill. Whether it was stubbornness or foolishness, I never considered giving the Yak Trax a try. There were more marathoners than usual still making their way up the Toll Road as I descended. I know that a number of people sign up and mostly walk the course, taking advantage of the same ten-hour cutoff the Challenge has. I assumed that was the case on this day and that the slippery conditions had slowed their pace.

When the final aid station came up, it was a great relief. My water bottle spout had unfrozen, but the zipper had not. My S-caps were still inaccessible, so this time I grabbed Gatorade at the station and mostly filled my bottle then headed on. I saw a friend from Lake James State Park helping at the aid station but sadly had little time to chat. I followed another runner out of the station and down the snowy trail back into Montreat. This next short stretch would be the steepest section of trail for the day and by far the slickest. Here, it was a mixture of snow and mud and it was the only time where I actually slipped, but fortunately did not fall. A guy ahead of me pulled up suddenly and said he thought he tore his toenail off. I slowed as if I could help, but there was nothing I could really do for something like that. He debated whether to take a look, but decided to just press on.

Down the steep pavement section in Montreat, that seemed longer than normal, and at the final aid station, I finally removed my jacket and my gloves as I was now pretty warm and didn't want to bonk in the last three miles. Part of me dreaded this next stretch because it always feels so long. This year, however, I felt a little bit of optimism, possibly due to having done it enough to remember the turns and distances. The nature trail parts are fun, though extra care was required on the bridges and steps. The greenway, where it always seems longest, went by a bit quicker this year. I was actually gaining on some Challengers ahead of me. For, I believe, the first time ever, I ran the entire last three miles, even the short, steep hills just before Lake Tacoma. As I descended into the Park, I saw Paul and Ray waiting, then Phyllis was down closer to the Park. I pushed as if I was going to pass the two guys not far ahead of me, but once I caught up, 1/4 of the way around the lake, I didn't want to do it and even told the guy I wasn't coming around. I knew no one was right behind me and I just didn't feel right passing (assuming they didn't have anything left) so I fell in behind them and coasted through to the finish. Well, mostly. When I saw the clock said something like 6:09:55, and I was twenty feet away, I did speed up a bit to keep it under 6:10. Ironically, though I remained behind the guy I had spoken to, the results have us reversed and have me one second ahead of him. I don't know if they grabbed my bib tag before his or they just saw my number first. Though I did not realize it at the time, having already gone inside to get a finisher's jacket, Beth came in right behind me.

So, my time was worse than normal for this version of the course, but I felt better and finished stronger. I guess the loose snow slowed me down somewhat and I won't know if using the Yak Trax would have helped in any way. As I look over the results (available at I have to wonder if I would have had a shot at Masters in the marathon, which was won in 3:49. I have had a 3:42 on the old course, that ran out the Parkway a bit, and a 3:53 on the current course in a year where I didn't feel great and had just come off running the Freedom Park New Year's Eve Ultra for the first time, as well as the Uwharrie 40-miler. It's really hard to say because of the snow this year. I do know that the Master's winner was 6th overall and I saw more than six marathoners coming back toward me before I reached the marathon turnaround.

This marks my sixth Challenge finish and each year always seems to leave me feeling like I could have done better "if." Solving the "if," however, is elusive as it seems to be different each year. I guess that's what keeps me coming back, the optimism that next year will go better.

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